Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is indicted for war crimes, has cancelled his plans to address a high-level meeting of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly's general debate, according to U.N. officials and diplomats.
"We understand he is not coming and we're glad he's not coming," said Christian Wenaweser, the U.N. ambassador of Liechtenstein and former president of the Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court. "We think it would have been bad for the United Nations to hose someone who has been issued and international arrest warrant."
The move followed several days of diplomatic efforts by the United States to convince Bashir not to come to New York, warning that it could not guarantee he would not be subject to arrest, according to U.N.-based diplomats. And it saved the Obama administration the embarrassment of hosting a visit by the world's most prominent alleged war criminal.
Bashir, who was indicted in 2009 and 2010 by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, announced plans to travel to the United Nations to address the annual gathering of presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs. He had even booked rooms at a hotel in midtown Manhattan.
The prospect of a visit by Bashir created a political dilemma for Washington, which is bound by a 1947 agreement with the global body to allow foreign diplomats safe passage to the United Nations, but has come under intensive pressure from lawmakers and human rights advocates to arrest the Sudanese leader.
Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), who has been active on Sudan matters for years, urged the Obama administration to arrest Bashir. "I recognize that the U.S. has host country obligations as it relates to the United Nations," Wolf wrote earlier today in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. "However, is there not a higher moral obligation to take concrete steps to bring an internationally indicted war criminal, with blood on his hands, to justice?"
The Hague-based court first issued an arrest warrant against Bashir in 2009, charging him with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in orchestrating the mass killing of more than 300,000 people in Darfur. A second arrest warrant accusing him of genocide was issued in 2010.
Sudan, which is not a party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, has refused to surrender Bashir to the Hague court. And Bashir has repeatedly defied the court's arrest warrant, traveling to at least a dozen countries, including China, Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria. But it appears the United States won't be added to that list.
Ty McCormick contributed to this report.
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that U.N. weapons inspectors have obtained "overwhelming" evidence that chemical weapons were used in an Aug. 21 attack that killed large numbers of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria. The inspection team, according to a U.N.-based diplomatic source, has uncovered traces of the nerve agent sarin, a key agent in the chemical weapons arsenal of President Bashar al-Assad's government.
"I believe that the report will be an overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used, even though I cannot say it publicly at this time," Ban said. Ban -- who made the remarks in a speech before the Women's International Forum -- thought he was speaking in a closed-door meeting. But the session was being broadcast live on an internal U.N. television feed.
It's the first time the United Nations has officially declared that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. And the acknowledgment comes two days before the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is scheduled on Sunday to present the U.N. chief with a report on his team's findings in Syria. Ban will present a briefing on the team's finding to the U.N. Security Council on Monday morning at 11 a.m.
As President Obama struggles to secure congressional approval for air strikes in Syria, America's principal Persian Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, has been quietly exploring the possibility of seeking a U.N. General Assembly vote that would provide some cover for military action.
The diplomatic initiative is part of a wider effort by Saudi Arabia to stake out a role as a central Middle East powerbroker as the forces of political turmoil sweep across the region. With the U.N. Security Council blocked by Russia from taking action to confront Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia is sounding out key U.N. powers about the prospect of seeking General Assembly approval of a resolution that would condemn the use of chemical weapons and open the door to possible military action to ensure those responsible are held accountable.
The Saudis have grown increasingly assertive on the regional stage, recently organizing a $12 billion financial aid package, including commitments from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, for Egypt's military rulers, a move that undercut U.S. efforts to start political talks between Egypt's new government and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Arab states have also offered to underwrite the full costs of a U.S.-led military operation against Syria. "With respect to Arab countries offering to bear costs and to assess, the answer is profoundly yes." Kerry didn't name Saudi Arabia as the country making the offer, but there are few other states outside the Persian Gulf with the money or the political interest in seeing the Americans unseating Syria's leader. "In fact, some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost," he added. "That's how dedicated they are at this."
But Kerry made it clear that the initiative was "not in the cards, and nobody's talking about it." Despite U.S. plans to strike Syria, Kerry made it clear that the United States believes that the crisis in Syria can only be resolved through a political settlement.
In New York, Saudi diplomats last week circulated a draft General Assembly resolution that would authorize states to "take all necessary measures" -- diplomatic short hand for military force -- to end impunity and hold perpetrators of massive human rights abuses accountable for their crimes. On Friday, representatives from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Morocco briefed Britain, France and the United States on the draft.
The three Western powers urged Saudi Arabia to delay its plan to press for a vote. One diplomat familiar with the discussion said that the United States and its European allies were concerned that a contentious U.N. debate over the use of force could complicate military plans. But others cited concern that it made no sense to push for a resolution dealing with chemical weapons before the U.N. had even completed its assessment of its field visit. The U.N. secretary general is expected to present the U.N. Security Council with a report on the team's findings within the next 10 days.
For the moment, the Saudis are holding the draft in a "drawer" to see whether President Obama presses ahead with plans to strike Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons, according to one diplomat briefed on the plans. But they expect the Saudis to resume their push whether the Americans go ahead with the strike or not. "The Saudis must be very concerned that the United States is going to blink and avoid using force," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, citing Washington and Moscow's ongoing push to initiate political talks between the warring factions in Geneva. "The Saudis are trying to signal they are trying to push for the United States to go all the way."
While London recently sought support for a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters that Russia has made it clear it will block any action by the Security Council on Syria. "Even in the wake of the flagrant shattering of the international norm against chemical weapons use, Russia continues to hold the Council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities," Power said. "Our considered view, after months of efforts on chemical weapons and after two and a half years on Geneva, on the humanitarian situation, is that there is no viable path forward in this Security Council."
There are precedents for the U.N. General Assembly in authorizing the use of force in the face of Security Council paralysis. In November 1950, the United States, fearing Russian diplomatic obstruction during the Korean War, obtained a mandate from the U.N. General Assembly that granted the U.N. body a role in bypassing the U.N. Security Council. That measure, known at the Uniting for Peace resolution, states that "if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security." The General Assembly would later invoke the Uniting for Peace resolution to send a U.N. peacekeeping mission to the Sinai.
More recently, the United States, Britain, and France have grown reluctant to support a similar role for the U.N. General Assembly, preferring that all decisions on the use of force remain subject to Security Council approval.
Edward Luck, the dean of the University of San Diego's School of Peace Studies, said he wouldn't rule out eventual U.S. support for a General Assembly resolution. "My assumption would be that the United States at this point would welcome any strong show of international support for its position," he said. But the risk is that a low vote count would expose deep international misgiving about military action. "The United States doesn't want the same thing to happen in the General Assembly as happened in the British Parliament," where British Prime Minister David Cameron's push for military action in Syria met a devastating defeat, said Luck.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
A panel of independent U.N. experts who investigated the source of a deadly cholera epidemic that killed thousands of Haitians has concluded that United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal "most likely" introduced the strain into the Haitian population.
The panel's findings mark a dramatic retreat from their earlier, 2011 finding that found it impossible to assign responsibility for the strain's origins; the evidence was incomplete evidence, they said at the time, and too many things -- inadequate water, lousy sanitation -- contributed to the 2010 epidemic's spread.
The latest findings will increase pressure on the United Nations to acknowledge responsibility for introducing cholera into the country. In February, the United Nations invoked diplomatic immunity in dodging legal responsibility for paying compensation to victims and their families. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and his top advisors specifically invoked the panel's earlier, ambivalent findings in arguing that the U.N. bore no legal responsibility for the epidemic.
But now the four scientists -- Alejandro Cravioto, Daniele Lantagne, G. Balakrish Nair, Claudio F. Lanata -- who wrote the original report say that new evidence that has come to light in the past two years. While not conclusive, that evidence has strengthened the case against the United Nations.
The experts -- who no longer work for the United Nations -- also defended their initial findings, saying the "majority of evidence" at the time was "circumstantial." They added, that the "current strain Nepal strain of cholera was not available for molecular analysis" at the time.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Facebook, Google and other social media giants have been all-too-willing to hand over information about their users when American intelligence and law enforcement agencies come calling.
But what can a team of international investigators expect to hear when they ask for a peek into their trove of data for clues about the activities of terrorist, pirates and narco-traffickers?
That's essentially what happened when a panel of U.N. investigators recently approached Facebook to request information on six users linked to Somalia's piracy and organized crime networks.
"Despite repeated official correspondence addressed to Facebook, Inc." representatives of the U.N. Security Council's Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea wrote in a report released last week, "It has never responded to the Monitoring Group requests to discuss information on Facebook accounts belonging to individuals involved in hijackings and hostage taking."
For years, U.N. investigators working from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Somalia and Sudan have quietly sought email, telephone intercepts and social media exchanges and metadata from foreign intelligence agencies, local telecommunications firms, and major social media companies, including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. But they have been routinely refused by the big American tech companies, who have cited the lack of a subpoena or court order in denying the request, according to former panel members.
Facebook declined a request by Foreign Policy to explain why they refused to cooperate with the U.N. group, which was established by the U.N. Security Council to monitor compliance with an international arms embargo and to expose forces seeking to undermine the peace process in one of the world's most dysfunctional countries.
Getty Images News/ Justin Sullivan
Revelations of widespread data mining by the National Security Agency may be sending shock waves across America and Europe, where digital privacy concerns have been mounting in recent years.
But the disclosure of the NSA's efforts to gather information from companies like Google, Yahoo, and Verizon came as little shock to foreign diplomats here at U.N. headquarters -- even though many members of the Security Council are uniquely vulnerable to American surveillance sweeps, because they rely on commercial email systems. Secretary General Ban Ki moon, a former South Korean foreign minister who likely relied on spies during his years in government, has shown little interest in weighing in on the controversy, according to U.N.-based diplomats.
For years, those diplomats say, they have taken it for granted that their phone calls, emails, and social media interactions are being monitored by spy agencies from the United States, China, Russia, and many other countries.
"In our view it's normal," Atoki Ileka, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's former U.N. envoy, told Turtle Bay in a telephone interview from Paris, where he currently serves as his country's ambassador. "It's not just a U.S. thing, or Russian, or French. It's common in all countries; spies going through our web sites, emails. It's something we are used to and living through."
Several U.N. based diplomats and officials interviewed for this story said they shared similar expectations -- that most of their electronic and digital communications are being monitored by friendly and unfriendly governments.
"I think we all assume all of our emails are being monitored by all sorts of countries," said one senior U.N. official, who like most others interviewed for this piece spoke by telephone or communicated by email on the condition of anonymity.
Another top U.N. official echoed that sentiment, adding that he had not heard that any of his colleagues had responded to the current surveillance uproar by cancelling their accounts with Yahoo or any of the other American service providers that reportedly cooperated with the American intelligence agency. "People are too electronically engaged in the web to quit it," the official said. Indeed, a senior East European diplomat who routinely communicates with me by email sent me a message on another topic this morning from a personal Gmail account.
Still, the latest revelations have highlighted particular vulnerabilities for poor countries that lack the financial wherewithal to secure their email communications. For instance, a review of the email lists for U.N. Security Council political councilors -- the diplomats who organize the council's daily business -- shows that countries like Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Russia, and Pakistan communicate with their colleagues on commercial Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo accounts. Chinese diplomats communicate with their council partners through a combination of government email addresses and Gmail. In contrast, the United States, Britain, and France communicate through government emails, and they send encrypted email cables to capital through secure lines.
Electronic espionage has had a place of pride in U.N. history since the organization's birth, according to an account in Stephen C. Schlesinger's history of the U.N. founding. At the opening U.N. conference in San Francisco in 1945, U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius routinely reviewed the secret diplomatic cables sent by his colleagues to foreign capitals. The U.S. Army Signal Security Agency, the forerunner of the National Security Agency, forced commercial telegraph companies to hand over hundreds of pages of secret diplomatic messages.
Even in modern times, U.N.-based espionage operations involving U.S., Russian, or nationals from other countries periodically come to light. The first major round of Wikileaks cables published by the Guardian and the New York Times included a cable that instructed American diplomats to collect information on their colleagues. In the run up to the Iraq war, a British newspaper reported that the National Security Agency had ordered an eavesdropping "surge" on their telephones in order to learn their voting positions on a resolution that would pave the way for a U.S.- led war against Iraq. "The fact is, this sort of thing goes with the territory," Pakistan's then U.N. ambassador, Munir Akram, told me at the time. "You'd have to be very naive to be surprised."
In the wake of such revelations, said one European diplomat, some diplomats take precautionary actions, for instance limiting their email communications to secure government accounts. But over time most drop their guard, exchanging notes through government or commercial email accounts alike. The feeling, the diplomat said, is that the United Nations, with its 193 member states, holds few secrets. On the most sensitive matters, communications are passed on by secure emails, word of mouth, exchanged in document form by hand, or made available for "eyes only" within the secure confines of a foreign mission.
Still, while many diplomats are cavalier they say their political counterparts back home are not, given the rising public backlash against American digital giants like Facebook and Google. In Eastern Europe, the scene of intensive eavesdropping during the Cold War, the latest revelations have only increased concern about the loss of privacy. In Germany, for instance, Google faced intense opposition to its digital street mapping program. Today, a digital stroll down some of Berlin's main boulevards reveals pixilated buildings.
U.N. officials said that the U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, is considering issuing a statement criticizing American surveillance practices. But here at U.N. headquarters the top brass have hardly taken note of the latest disclosure. The issue, said one U.N. official, is not on the "radar screen" of U.N. policy makers in New York, "probably further proof that we operate in a bubble, cut off from the real world."
If further proof were needed, the official delivered those remarks to Turtle Bay by email. Even PRISM, the official noted, "doesn't seem to stop us being indiscreet."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
The U.N. Security Council struggled this evening to prevent the collapse of a beleaguered mission that has helped maintain peace between Israel and Syria along the Golan Heights for nearly 40 years.
The fate of the mission -- the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) -- was placed in jeopardy this week when the Austrian government announced plans to withdraw the largest national contingent, some 380 Austrian peacekeepers, from the mission, which currently has 913 troops. The Austrian announcement followed a surge of fighting between Syrian regime forces and rebels in the U.N.-monitored demilitarized zone.
"Freedom of movement in the area de facto no longer exists. The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and his deputy Michael Spindelegger said Thursday in a joint statement. It continued, noting that "further delay (in withdrawing the troops) is no longer justifiable."
The U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session tonight to review the options for preserving the mission. Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, who is serving as the Security Council president for June, told reporters after the meeting that the United Nations has appealed to Austria to delay their pullout in order to give it the chance to find replacements.
Lyall Grant said the U.N. peacekeeping department has been in urgent discussions with countries that still have troops in the mission -- including India, which has nearly 200 blue helmets and the Philippines, which has roughly 350 -- to reinforce their contingents. It has also reached out to new countries, including Fiji, which was already planning to send a relatively small contingent of blue helmets, to send more.
Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that his government is willing to replace the Austrian contingent with a battalion of at least 300 blue helmets. But he noted that any decision would require agreement by the Israeli and Syrian governments, because their 1974 truce bars any of the five permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- from participating in the mission. He also said he asked the U.N. legal department to determine whether a new Security Council resolution may be required.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian crisis today in a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it was unclear whether Putin asked the Israeli leader to approve a Russian peacekeeping role in the Golan.
Council diplomats were puzzled by the Russian offer, noting that Moscow is one of Damascus's main military suppliers, and that Russian blue helmets would likely be targeted by Syrian rebels. They said they considered it unlikely that Israel or the Security Council's western powers would approve a Russian role in the Golan Heights. The U.N., meanwhile, made clear that Russia could not participate under existing conditions.
"We appreciate the consideration that the Russian Federation has given to provide troops to the Golan," Martin Nesirky, the U.N.'s chief spokesman told reporters. "However, the Disengagement Agreement and its protocol, which is between Syria and Israel, do not allow for the participation of permanent members of the Security Council in UNDOF."
The U.N. mission first deployed U.N. blue helmets to the Golan in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War. The lightly armed observers were initially mandated to help maintain a cease fire, monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian troops, and finally to oversee an "area of separation" between the rival powers pending a full-fledged peace agreements. The two combatants never made peace, however, the demilitarized zone has remained relatively calm for the past four decades.
But the area has emerged in recent months as a key battlefield between the Syria rebels, who initially sought a safe haven in the area, and the Syrian government, which has moved heavy weapons into the area of separation -- a violation of the terms of the 1974 cease-fire agreement -- to drive the rebels out. U.N. peacekeepers have been the target of an increasing number of attacks, hijackings, and abductions that have heightened concern among governments about the mission's viability. Fighting along the Golan Heights has already prompted other U.N. peacekeeping contingents -- from Croatia and Japan -- to leave the region.
Lyall Grant said the U.N. Security Council is "united in expressing their concern" about the ongoing fighting in the Golan and the proposal to withdraw troops." Everyone agreed that UNDOF should continue in its mission, even if temporarily reduced in its ability to fulfill the current mandate," he said.
The U.N. peacekeeping department, he said, is "trying to encourage the Austrians to slow down their departure from the theater and dissuade any other current troop contributors from withdrawing troops. I think we are in a serious situation and we need to work together to try to protect the mission from collapse."
Lyall Grant said that the U.N. mandate in the Golan might not be sustainable over the long term. He said the U.N. peacekeeping department would present the Security Council with a set of options before June 26, when the mission's mandate expires, on whether the mission's mandate needs to be "strengthened, ended, or changed in the light of current circumstances."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Some Republicans looked like they were set up for a new fight against President Barack Obama's nominee for to replace Susan Rice as U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, former journalist and Harvard scholar, who has written critically of what she viewed as America's moral failure in the face of modern genocides in Africa and the Balkans.
"Jeanne Kirkpatrick is turning in her grave right now," Keith Urbahn, a former chief of staff to former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, tweeted this morning. "I don't know about you, but it might be helpful to have someone rep'ing America at UN who doesn't think we are the source of world's ills."
But by the time President Barack Obama announced Power's and Rice's nominations at a White House ceremony things were beginning to look up. As the Cable reported, Republican conservatives were voicing report for the Power. And Senator John McCain, who had vigorously opposed Rice's nomination to become U.S. Secretary of State, issued a statement backing Power. "I support President Obama's nomination of Samantha Power to become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nation," McCain said. "I believe she is well qualified for this important position and hope the Senate will move forward on her nomination as soon as possible."
Yet Urbahn cited a lengthy article by Power in the March 2003 issue of the New Republic, the same month the United States entered Iraq, a conflict which epitomized for her the Bush administration's "overreliance on power in the name of principle."
In that piece, Power faulted the United States for applying double standards -- what she termed "a la cartism" -- in the conduct of its foreign policy, griping about the "shortage of democracy in Palestine, but not in Pakistan," or bombing Serbs in defense of ethnic Albanians but saying nothing about Russian excesses in Chechnya.
Power argued that America's international standing and credibility required that Washington also confront the darker chapters of its foreign policy past -- CIA-backed coups in Guatemala, Chile, and Congo, and the doubling of U.S. assistance to Saddam Hussein the year he gassed the Kurds.
"We need a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, permitted by the United States," she wrote. "Willie Brandt [the former German Chancellor] went down on one knee in the Warsaw ghetto, his gesture was gratifying to World War II survivors, but it was also cathartic for Germany," she wrote. "Would such an approach be futile for the United States?"
The New Republic piece, as well as many other published writings, including her book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, will provide fertile ground for Republicans to pick through for signs of her political suitability.
Power has long had a deep interest in the United Nations, which she covered as a freelance reporter in the Balkans in the 1990s. She wrote a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil, the U.N. trouble-shooter who was killed in the Aug. 2003 terrorist attack against the U.N. compound in Baghdad.
But if Power survives the confirmation hearing, she may have some explaining to do here in New York. Before joining the Obama administration, where she served as the National Security Staff's expert on international organizations and U.N. peacekeeping, Power had provided a withering assessment of the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Here's my account of her remarks:
During then Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign, a top foreign-policy advisor, Samantha Power, spoke disparagingly of Ban, characterizing his handling of the Darfur crisis as "extremely disappointing," in a Frontline interview. Ban ‘looks to be adopting the persona of many of his predecessors in that job, which is to be more of a secretary than a general. Darfur needs a general. Not a military general, it needs a diplomatic general, a political general, a moral general. It doesn't need a secretary."
"Is that all there is?" she told the New Statesman, a British magazine, before Obama was elected. "Can we afford to do without a global figure, a global leader?" U.S. officials have insisted that Power's comments do not reflect the views of the current administration, in which Power serves as a White House advisor on multilateral issues.
Obama administration officials have previously noted that the remarks were not made while she was in government and that said that she has since patched up her relationship with Ban.
But Power has also directed sharp criticism of the human rights conduct of other key U.N. powers, including China and Russia. The U.N. Security Council, she noted in her New Republic piece, is "anachronistic, undemocratic, and consists of countries that lack the standing to be considered good faith arbiters of how to balance stability against democracy peace against justice and security against human rights."
Hmm, this is going to be interesting...
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Ed.: This post has been updated to reflect Sen. John McCain's statements in support of Power's nomination.
Speaking at the Russian mission to the United Nations, Churkin said that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov will make the case for Tehran's participation in a meeting Wednesday in Geneva with top U.S. officials, including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. The United States has opposed Tehran's presence in talks on an international political settlement in Syria, arguing that Iran has been arming the Syrian government and has no interest in a political transition.
The dispute over Iran's participation in political talks has held up agreement on a U.S. and Russian proposal to bring Syrian government and opposition leaders together at an international conference to bring an end to the civil war. The U.S. and Russian delegation are aiming to overcome their differences in tomorrow's talks, and will hopefully schedule a date for the peace conference, which was supposed to be set for this month.
"There are two immediate issues which need to be clarified: Who is going to represent the opposition? And then who is going to be invited" from outside the country," Churkin said. "We are arguing that Iran should be invited; some are saying Iran should not be invited."
Churkin said that Russia also favors the attendance of other key regional powers, including Egypt, which did not appear at a previous diplomatic summit on Syria hosted by former U.N.-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan, and Saudi Arabia, which has supplied arms to the opposition. "We are in favor of having all of those who can have influence."
For two years, the United States and Russia have been sharply divided over the approach to containing the Syrian crisis, with Washington calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power, and Moscow, which insists that Syria's leader have a say in the country's political future. Russia has cast its veto three times to block the Security Council from adopting a resolution compelling Assad to accept a political transition that would lead to his demise.
"If you go back and look at this whole saga of Syria and our vetoes in the Security Council, I think the problem was that really we felt that the United States and those who actively supported the United States were out to effect forcible regime change," Churkin said. "And we were, as a matter of principle and as a matter of geopolitics, if you will. Against that because we felt that would bring about a chain of events...which was going to be extremely dangerous to Syria and for the region."
Despite U.S. and Russian differences, Churkin said that the former Cold War adversaries have been working productively over Syria. While accusing Britain and France of seeking to continue to foment regime change, Churkin said the United States has been "more realistic in seeing the situation in Syria as less simplistic than some West European countries."
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russian diplomatic talks on Syria are unfolding amid fresh reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. A U.N. human rights panel issued a report indicating there were "reasonable grounds" to believe that forces loyal to Assad has used limited amounts of chemical weapons on at least four occasions in March and April. Separately, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that a French lab confirmed the "presence of sarin in the samples in our possession" and that it "now is certain that sarin gas was used in Syria multiple times and in a localized way."
Britain's U.N. envoy Mark Lyall-Grant said that his government believe there is evidence that small amounts of sarin have been used in Syria.
"The evidence that we have suggest that there is a use of a number of different variants of chemical agents, a combination of agents, in some cases sometimes including sarin, sometimes not," he told reporters a press conference at U.N. headquarters. "It is relatively small quantities but notheless repeated use."
"Our view is that there has been credible evidence that in small quantities chemical weapons have been used by the regime in Syria," he added. "We have no evidence that the opposition either possesses or has used chemical weapons."
In advance of the Geneva talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that Moscow may be reconsidering its plans to deliver advanced S-300 advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. "It is a very serious weapon," Putin said. "We do not want to upset the balance of power in the region."
Despite the increased U.S. and Russian cooperation on Syria, Moscow continues to block any action on Syria in the U.N. Security Council. Last month, Russia rejected a request by Jordan to send a Security Council delegation to Jordan to witness the refugee plight and to help Jordan cope with the overwhelming financial costs of tending to their needs.
Churkin said that "one of the problems" with approving the trip was that it would be unfair to the Palestinians, who have been seeking a Security Council visit for more than three years. But he said the "main problem" is that "we didn't see that the Security Council should get involved in the refugee situations at this point." Russia was also concerned that some non-permanent members of the council made it clear that their interest in having that mission of the Security Council to Jordan was to build a bridge towards humanitarian corridors, no-fly zone...essentially dragging Jordan into the Syrian. If you want to deal with the actual refugee situation then let's deal with the refugee situation. We can send experts. Or we can have a conference on refugees."
Churkin also said that he had rejected a proposal by Britain over the weekend to adopt a U.N. Security Council press statement condemning Syria for its brutal siege of the town of Qusayr. The Russian envoy complained that the statement was "not balanced."
Churkin also touched on the history of prickly relations with his American counterpart, Susan Rice. Despite their differences, Churkin said that they "do have a very good personal and working relationship. " But he said that "sometimes we have clashed, and sometimes we have clashed in a nasty way. Do I do it on purpose? Of course not."
But he sounded as though he may relish the jousts. Once, he recalled, at a Security Council retreat he quipped: "I regard my day as wasted if I don't pick a fight with Ambassador Rice. But that was a joke."
Follow me on twitter @columlynch
More than 60 nations today signed the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty at U.N. headquarters, displaying a strong show of support for the world's first international pact regulating the $70 billion international arms trade.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the official opening of the treaty for signatures. But he said that while the Obama administration intends to sign the treaty, he would not join dozens of other leading allies from Britain, France, Germany, Japan, in doing so today.
"The treaty is an important contribution to efforts to stem the illicit trade in conventional weapons, which fuels conflict, empowers violent extremists, and contributes to violations of human rights," Kerry said in a statement. "The United States welcomes the opening of the Arms Trade Treaty for signature, and we look forward to signing it as soon as the process of conforming the official translations is completed satisfactorily."
Kerry offered no explanation as to why a matter so technical as "translation" had held up American action. But U.N. diplomats familiar with the dispute said that the United States remains unwilling to commit until the lengthy, sometimes contentious, process of translating the treaty, which was negotiated in English, is written down in the other official U.N. languages -- Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish.
The United States had challenged the translation of certain words and passages into foreign languages, including Spanish and Russian. Last week, the U.N. posted the corrections and the U.N. membership has 90 days to challenge the final translation. The United States will considering offering its signature after that process is completed.
The 193-nation U.N. General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty 154 to 3 on April 2, overcoming stiff opposition from Iran, North Korea, and Syria and drawing the enthusiastic backing of the United States. But the treaty will not go into force until 90 days after at least 50 nations have ratified the pact. April's U.N. vote (which drew 23 abstentions) revealed broader misgivings by dozens of countries, including Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan -- which argued the treaty would extend unfair advantages to the world's largest arms exporters. Two major arms exporters, China and Russia, also abstained on the vote.
Argentina's Foreign Minister Hector Timmerman was the first person to sign the treaty.
Alistair Burt, Britain's parliamentary undersecretary of state, said his government would "aim to ratify" the treaty within a year. "After 10 years of campaigning and 7 years of negotiation the Arms Trade Treaty has opened for signature and the international community has queued up to sign it," he said. "The treaty is now the international blueprint for the regulation of conventional arms and it is a fresh starting point for international cooperation."
Under the treaty, states are banned from transferring arms to countries, including Iran and North Korea, that are subject to U.N. arms embargoes, or to countries believed to be preparing to use them to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.
The treaty would require governments to establish a national record-keeping system that would allow them to track the trade in conventional arms, and to ensure that weapons are not illegally diverted to terrorist organizations or other armed groups. It would also require that governments conduct a risk assessment to determine the likelihood that arms exports are being used to violate or abuse human rights, particularly against women or children.
The arms treaty would apply to several categories of conventional arms, including battle tanks, combat aircraft, warships, attack helicopters, missiles, and small arms. The treaty includes exemptions that would allow the consideration of defense cooperation agreements between governments and allow states to transfer weapons across international borders, so long as the weapons remain under that state's control.
The National Rifle Association has vowed to vigorously oppose ratification of the treaty in the Senate, claiming it would weaken the Second Amendment.
But Kerry countered today that the treaty "will not undermine the legitimate international trade in conventional weapons, interfere with national sovereignty, or infringe on the rights of American citizens, including our Second Amendment rights."
"The treaty will require the parties to implement strict controls, of the kind the United States already has in place, on the international transfer of conventional arms to prevent their diversion and misuse and create greater international cooperation against black market arms merchants," Kerry said.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, appealed last week to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to expand his investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria to include three additional towns where rebels claimed nerve agents were used, a British official confirmed today.
The appeal comes as the United States and Russia are preparing the ground for a major peace conference on Syria in Geneva, planned for June. The preparations for the Geneva talks have shifted the international debate away from talk of a U.S. military response to the use of chemicals weapons by the Syrian regime to U.S. and Russian efforts to fashion a political settlement.
In advance of those talks, Britain has sought to build up political pressure on Syria and its chief patron, Russia, to yield to international pressure to accept the establishment of a transitional government to replace President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
On Monday, Britain led diplomatic efforts in Brussels to block the extension of a European arms embargo on Syria, raising the prospect that European governments might ship arms to the Syrian rebels if political talks fail. And this morning, Britain's U.N. envoy informed reporters about his government's concerns over new possible use of chemical weapons.
In the British letter, Lyall Grant urged the U.N. chief to investigate rebel claims that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons in March in the town of Adra, near Damascus; in April in Darraya; and in late April in Saraquib, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the British account.
A spokeswoman for the British mission to the United Nations, Iona Thomas, declined to discuss the details of the information shared. But she said: "The United Kingdom's permanent representative to the United Nations has written to the U.N. Secretary General to draw attention to three further allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria and have asked that they be included in the UN's ongoing investigation."
The Syrian government first invited the United Nations to investigate possible chemical weapons use back in March. The regime accused the Syrian opposition of using chemical weapons during fighting in the town of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo on March 19, where 26 people were killed, including regime troops.
Britain and France countered with their own calls for investigations into the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and possibly Damascus.
Ban appointed a veteran Swedish chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, to investigate the allegations by the Syrian government and European powers. But Syria has not agreed to permit an investigation into the European claims and has not yet allowed the team into the country. Sellstrom, whose contract was recently extended until November, is seeking to collect as much evidence as possible outside the country, interviewing government officials with access to intelligence on Syria's chemical weapons program, refugees, and other potential eyewitnesses who have left the country.
So far, Britain has written the U.N. chief four letters documenting its concerns about chemical weapons use in Syria. It is also sharing more detailed information on the latest three attacks with Sellstrom, according to a U.N. diplomat. But Britain has not made its findings public, making it impossible to verify the veracity of its claims that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons.Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
A British-led effort to lift a European Union arms embargo on Syria succeeded by default on Monday, as a political split between European leaders over the fate of the ban killed off any hopes of extending the embargo's life. The British government, backed by France, is hoping that the prospect of new arms flows to the Syrian rebels could strengthen the opposition's negotiating hand on the eve of a major peace conference in Geneva planned for later this month.
But the decision to end the embargo in two months hasn't resulted in any immediate calls or plans for arming the opposition. Instead, Russia cited the decision today in defending its own move to deliver S-300 air defense missiles, claiming it would deter foreign intervention. "We consider that such steps will restrain some hotheads from the possibility of giving this conflict, or from considering a scenario that would give this conflict, an international character with the participation of external forces," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters, according to Interfax news agency.
Jean Marie Guéhenno, a former French official and under secretary-general for peacekeeping who served as a top advisor to former U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Kofi Annan, said that the decision to block the maintenance of the European arms embargo has merely provided political cover to Russia and other regime supporters to continue its arms sales. Meanwhile, there's little fresh hope that Western powers will enter the conflict on behalf of the rebels.
"I think it backfired and exposed the weakness of the West, in general," Guéhenno told Turtle Bay. "This issue of arming or not arming is more a bluff than anything else. It's more about doing something to show you're doing something than actually doing something. It will be seen by the Russians, who are not fools, as a sign of weakness rather than strength."
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague hailed the decision to ease the barrier to arms shipments to the rebels, however. "We have brought an end to the EU arms embargo on the opposition," he said. "This decision gives us the flexibility in future to respond to a worsening situation or the refusal of the regime to negotiate."
But the decision placed new strains on the European alliance. Austria, the Czech Republic, and Sweden vehemently opposed lifting the arms embargo, fearing it would undermine a U.S. and Russian diplomatic initiative aimed at starting political talks between Damascus and the rebels. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger warned that they likely would pull 300 Austrian peacekeepers out of the Golan Heights, which separates Syrian and Israel forces, if Britain decides to arm the rebels, according to the Guardian.
The move to lift the embargo comes at a time when military support for President Bashar Al-Assad is on the rise, not only from Moscow but from Tehran and Lebanese Shiite militants. On Saturday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that his fighters were committed to wage Assad's battle to the end. "We will continue to the end of the road," he said, according to Reuters."We accept this responsibility and will accept all sacrifices and expected consequences of this position," he said in a televised speech on Saturday evening. "We will be the ones who bring victory."
In comparison, warnings from the West of possible military action in the future seem to be doing little to deter Assad's backers. Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the U.S. decision to co-sponsor, along with Russia, a diplomatic peace conference on Syria later this month, has lessened calls for military action to halt the killing. "Basically, this process kills the whole discussion on intervention, chemical weapons, and R2P [the Responsibility to Protect doctrine]," Hokayem told Turtle Bay.
"Yesterday's focus on the arms embargo issue at the European Foreign Minister's meeting was something of a red herring," Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey wrote in a blog post at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The West is, quite simply, ill-equipped to win a proxy arming race if its support for rebels prompts Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to increase their military backing of the regime. And that is exactly what has happened. Russia's announcement today that it will supply anti-aircraft missiles was entirely predictable."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
The Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on the Kabul compound of the U.N. affiliated International Organization for Migration, killing one Afghan police officer, injuring three of the agency's staff members and an employee of the International Labor Organization (IOM), the U.N. announced. Several U.N. and Afghan security officials were also injured.
The incident marked one of the deadliest attack against a facility associated with the United Nations since Oct. 28, 2009, when armed Taliban militants broke into a U.N. guesthouse in Kabul and opened fire on U.N. personnel and their Afghan guards.[*See note below]. Five U.N. personnel died in that incident, including an American, Louis Maxwell, who was killed by the Afghan police who mistook him for a Taliban fighter.
Today's action heightened U.N. concerns about the safety of its workers at a time when the United States and its Western military allies are beginning to draw down in Afghanistan. The United Nations is expected to play a more active role after the United States completes its withdrawal by the end of 2014.
In a statement issued in Kabul, Jan Kubis, the U.N. secretary general's special representative to Afghanistan condemned "today's terrorist attack centered on a compound of the International Organization for Migration. He said the four injured international staffers, including one IOM worker who sustained serious injuries, are receiving medical care. All other U.N. staff members in Kabul have been accounted for, he said.
"The Taliban have claimed responsibility, alleging that their target was a ‘military rest house,'" he said. "The situation is reported to be under the control of Afghan security forces. The mopping up operation continues, with sporadic fire being heard." A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters the Taliban forces were targeting a compound used by the CIA. Reuters also reported that the assault began with a car bomb explosion outside the compound housing the IOM.
Following the 2009 attack in Kabul, the United Nations withdrew some staff from the country, relocated others to more fortified facilities, and bolstered their security arrangements, which are provided by Afghan police and Nepalese Gurkhas working under a private contract.
In October 2010, Taliban militants launched an attack on a U.N. compound in the town of Herat, striking the facility's gate with a car bomb to allow suicide bombers disguised as women into the compound. Though Afghan police were injured, the attack was effectively repelled by U.N. guards and Afghan police.
Following today's assault, Kubis expressed "gratitude" for the quick response by "UN security personnel, including Gurkha guards provided by the firm IDG Security, and Afghan forces." He also expressed "sympathies to all the IDG security personnel, Afghan police and security forces injured while bravely responding to this terrorist attack."
[Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that this was the deadliest attack on a U.N. facility since 2009. On April 1, 2011, a mob protesting the burning of a Koran by a Florida pastor stormed a U.N. compound in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, killing three international staffers and four Nepalese Gurkha soldiers." Turtle Bay regrets the error.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the March 9 crash of a U.N.-contracted Russian Mi-8 helicopter during a storm in Eastern Congo that killed all four crew members and prompted internal calls from U.N. aviation officials for new safety features on aircraft.
In the days following the crash of the Russian helicopter, two mid-level U.N. aviation officials advocated the need for UTair (the chopper's owner) and other contractors to immediately install a safety device known as an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), a digital mapping system that allows pilots flying into a storm to detect and evade large obstacles, like mountains and buildings.
But Ameerah Haq, the undersecretary general in the U.N.'s Department of Field Support, overruled the U.N.'s aviation experts, saying that it needed to conduct "a review of technical and contractual arrangements" before deciding whether the equipment was needed. "This review," she wrote in a confidential communication to the Ukrainian government, "may possibly conclude that EGPWS, or other similar systems, should be installed in all aircraft contracted" for U.N peacekeeping missions, she wrote.
The internal debate over safety has commercial implications for some of the U.N. helicopter suppliers, particularly Ukraine, which has been installing the EPGWS warning systems in some their choppers, and the Russians, who have not.
Late Monday, the U.N. privately read out the latest bids on multimillion contracts for three helicopters for the U.N. mission in Congo.
UTair offered the lowest price, making it the odds-on favorite to win the contract. The Ukrainian entrant, along with two other Russian competitors and air operators from Canada and Nepal, proposed more expensive bids, making it likely they will lose out.
U.N. requirements to accept the lowest bid that meets qualifications means that the only way UTair could lose the bid is if the U.N. determines its helicopters are not in compliance or it a further analysis of the bids determines that somehow the Russian aircraft are more expensive than their competitors. But the fact that the Russian aircraft don't have the advanced safety systems the U.N. is currently evaluating will not be taken into consideration in the final decision, according to officials familiar with the procurement process.
Ukraine's U.N. ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, reacted angrily to the decision, saying the U.N. has "learnt no lesson from the previous tragedy." If any crash happens in future because of the absence of the EGPWS, he said, the U.N. will bear responsibility for the "crime."
The Russia mission to the United Nations has declined to respond to request for comment on the issue. A UTair spokesman, Ilya Khimich, also did not respond to a request for comment on the latest deal. But Khimich has previously defended UTair safety standards, saying the Russian operator uses "meteorological location" and "radio altimeter" instruments "which detect artificial and natural obstacles, as well as the geometric height above the ground surface." He said that the U.N. didn't require "enhanced proximity warning systems because of [the] total absence of topographic maps of Africa, which are mandatory system software."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
courtesy of the United Nations
The latest round of Russian and U.S. diplomacy has yet to prove it can end a civil war in Syria that has already exacted well over 70,000 lives and threatened to engulf the region. But it has been enough to convince Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, to put his retirement plans on hold and serve as the diplomatic ringleader for the high-stakes negotiations.
The political conference -- which is designed to bring together Syrian officials, opposition leaders, and big-power foreign ministers -- is expected to begin in Geneva, Switzerland, around June 15 and last two to three days, though the final date has not been set in stone, according to diplomats involved in the preparation. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has committed to open the event with a speech, but he will turn over the work of mediation to Brahimi, a veteran diplomatic trouble shooter who has negotiated peace deals in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brahimi has confided to diplomats that he envisions the conference as a truncated version of the 2001 Bonn conference, where the former Algerian diplomat helped forge a transitional Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai to fill a political vacuum created by the U.S.-led military overthrow of the Taliban. The meeting will start large, with speeches by senior international dignitaries, and then shift into more intimate talks involving the warring parties.
Brahimi's goal is to gain support for the implementation of the June 2012 Geneva action plan, which outlined a roadmap for a political transition to a provisional government with full executive powers in Damascus. The Geneva pact -- which was backed by Russia and the United States -- represents the most important big-power agreement on a plan to resolve the conflict. But the deal has foundered in the face of a split over the wisdom of threatening further sanctions against the Syrian government to compel its compliance with the terms, as well as differences over the role of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's future.
There are several crucial matters that remain unresolved on the eve of talks, including the composition of the Syrian and opposition delegation, and the question of whether they will talk directly or communicate through Brahimi. The role of the United States and Russia, the key sponsors of the conference, and other major powers like Britain, China, France, and Turkey remains undecided. Some of the most controversial regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, which is arming the opposition, and Iran, which is arming the Syrian government, will not likely be invited.
So far, the Syrian government has proposed some five to six names of government representatives, including Prime Minister Wael al-Halki, Information Minister Omran Zoabi, and Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar. But the opposition has yet to select their own representatives or approve the Syrian government list.
Selecting an agreed slate has been complicated by the need to identify individuals who have sufficient authority over the Syrian combatants to compel them to accept a potential political deal, but who are not associated with human rights abuses.
The diplomacy is unfolding against a backdrop of deepening violence, not only in Syria, but in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, where fighting broke out on May 19 between residents of Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods in the town of Tripoli.
The pro-Syrian militia, Hezbollah, has sent fighters to aid Assad's forces in its battle for the town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East told the Security Council today. "The past month has seen repeated incidents of shelling from Syria into Lebanese territory that has caused casualties."
Serry also said that the U.N. secretary general "remains gravely concerned about the allegations of the use of chemical weapons." Citing "mounting reports on the use of chemical weapons" he urged the Syrian government to allow a U.N. team into the country to examine the allegations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, met in Amman, Jordan, today with the pro-opposition diplomatic coalition called the "Friends of Syria" -- a group that includes representatives of Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Kerry said they would discuss how to help the opposition fashion a slate of representatives for the Geneva talks that constitute the "broadest base possible in Syria."
"We will discuss the framework, the structure of what we think Geneva ought to be. And obviously, that will have to be discussed with the Russians, with the United Nations, and with others in order to find the formula that moves us forward most effectively," Kerry said before the meeting. "We will listen to all voices with respect to the format, to the timing, to the agenda, and to the outcomes that should be discussed."
In the meantime, the U.S. and European powers sought to increase pressure on Syria to show flexibility in Geneva. On Monday, the European Union is expected to meet on Monday to decide whether to lift or ease an arms embargo that has limited the opposition's ability to purchase weapons. Kerry, meanwhile, warned that the United States may be prepared to provide military support to the opposition. "In the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate ... in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support for the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Courtesty of the United Nations: Jean-Marc Ferre
The 193-member U.N. General Assembly today "strongly" condemned the Syrian government for its "indiscriminate" shelling and bombing of civilian populations and the commission of "widespread and systematic" human rights in a conflict that has dragged on for more than 2 years and left more than 70,000 people dead.
The resolution -- which was co-sponsored by most Arab and Western governments -- was adopted by a vote of 107 to 12, with 59 abstentions. Today's action drove a wedge between the United States, which backed it, and Russia, which opposed it, at a time when the two powers are struggling to start talks between the Syrian government and the opposition on a political transition.
The General Assembly measure is not legally binding on Syria, but it represents the latest in a series of U.N. resolutions highlighting Syria's growing isolation, and ensures that Damascus will continue to face intense scrutiny at the United Nations. But the large number of abstentions, particularly among African countries, reflected broader international disquiet over the resolution's promotion of the Syrian opposition's claim to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The resolution's drafting was spearheaded by Qatar, a Persian Gulf sheikdom that has been arming the Syrian opposition. Qatar has been seeking for several weeks to secure broad international support for a resolution that would elevate the Syrian National Coalition's standing at the United Nations.
The final text stopped short of recognizing the Syrian opposition, though it included a provision that notes the "wide international acknowledgement" of the Syrian coalition "as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people."
Damascus and its political allies, including Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, denounced the measure as one-sided, saying any decision about the legitimacy of Syria's leadership should be agreed by Syrians. The resolution, they claimed, also unfairly targeted the government for criticism while making no mention of opposition atrocities or a long string of terrorist attacks by anti-government extremists. While the resolution condemns violence by all combatants and demands that all parties halt human rights abuses, it largely ignores specific allegations of wrongdoing by the armed opposition and anti-government extremists.
"This draft resolution seeks to escalate the crisis and fuel violence in Syria" by undermining the government through the recognition of a "fake representative" of the Syrian people, said Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Al-Jaafari.
Najib Chadban, the Syrian National Coalition's representative to the United States and the United Nations, welcomed the vote for bringing the question of Syria back to the United Nations after months of inaction and "keeping the Syria alive." But he acknowledged "a lot of Syrians are not very happy with the inability of this organization to do something to end the killing." Chadban said the resolution calls on the secretary general to report and that he would begin to lobby other government to transfer the Syrian seat from the government to the opposition when the U.N. credential committee meets in September.
Russia's deputy ambassador, Alexander Pankin, said it was "irresponsible and counterproductive" of the resolution's sponsors to "introduce division" among U.N. members at a delicate moment in U.S. and Russian diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Syria. The world needs "a unified approach; we don't need destructive initiatives her at the United Nations."
But Rosemary DiCarlo, the second-highest ranking U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said resolution was perfectly consistent with Washington and Moscow's peace efforts "The Assad regime, drawing upon an arsenal of heavy weapons, aircraft, ballistic missiles, and -- potentially chemical weapons -- has killed or injured untold numbers of civilians who for many months manifested their opposition purely through peaceful protest," she said. "In our view, this resolution will send a clear message that the political solution we all seek is the best way to end the suffering of the people of Syria."
The resolution includes a list of longstanding U.N. demands that have never been honored by the Syrian government: For instance, it demands that Syrian authorities "immediately release" thousands of political prisoners; provide "full and unfettered" access to an international commission of inquiry probing rights abuses; and allow unimpeded access to humanitarian aid workers to Syrian civilians, particularly in rebel-controlled areas that can only be reached by crossing conflict lines, or by entering through Turkey. The resolution will ask a U.N. special human rights researcher to present a report in 90 days on the status of Syria's internally displaced civilians. It also asks U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to report on the resolution's implementation within 30 days, a provision that will guarantee Syria remains a topic of debate at the United Nations.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
For a rare afternoon at U.N. headquarters, the U.S. and Iranian governments took a break from bashing one another. Instead, they were getting ready to go to the mat.
The U.N. cafeteria provided the stage for a bout of international sports diplomacy, as American, Iranian, and Russian wrestlers gathered for lunch as well as an opportunity to rally behind a common cause: appealing to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to keep wrestling in the Olympics.
Today's U.N. event -- sponsored by USA wrestling, FILA, and the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, and hosted by the U.N. Correspondent's Association -- comes one day before the Rumble on the Rails at Grand Central Station, a wrestling contest that will match up the world's best Greco Roman wrestlers from Iran, the world's top wrestling team, with the United States and Russia, two other national powerhouses.
It provided a forum for scripted diplomatic pronouncements about the importance of preserving the sport from senior Iranian and Russian diplomats, who recalled wrestling's long, revered place in their country's history. State Department officials were present at the event, but the U.S. government played a low-key role, absent from the list of speakers. Instead, a group of American wrestling advocates, including the actor Billy Baldwin, a former wrestler himself, took the podium to speak up for the sport on America's behalf.
Not surprisingly it wasn't Baldwin, but a young Olympian that best captured the spirit of the event, arguing that Greco Roman wrestling had something to teach international diplomats and politicians.
"We can get together, me and the Iranians and the Russians, and we can go out on the mat and physically do everything possible to beat the crap out of one another," explained Jake Herbert, 28, an American silver medalist in the 2012 Olympics. "No one is going to get killed; no one is going to get injured; you're going to leave it out on the mat and then be friends. We're united -- Iran, Russia, and the USA -- all through sports, something they have never been able to do through politics before and something they should be able to look at and learn."
In fact, the event provided a rare respite from the diplomatic clashes over a range of issues -- from Iran's nuclear ambitions to the international response to the Syria crisis -- that more typically define U.S. relations with Tehran. On Monday, Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, sounded off on Iran's upcoming assumption, through rotation, of the presidency of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament (CD), calling it "unfortunate and highly inappropriate."
"The United States continues to believe that countries that are under Chapter VII sanctions for weapons proliferation or massive human-rights abuses should be barred from any formal or ceremonial positions in U.N. bodies," she said. "While the presidency of the CD is largely ceremonial and involves no substantive responsibilities, allowing Iran -- a country that is in flagrant violation of its obligations under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and to the IAEA Board of Governors -- to hold such a position runs counter to the goals and objectives of the Conference on Disarmament itself. As a result, the United States will not be represented at the ambassadorial level during any meeting presided over by Iran."
Despite the administration's diplomatic campaign to isolate Iran, the United States has largely embraced the effort to improve relations with Iran through wrestling. American wrestlers have competed against the Iranians 11 times since 1998, when USA Wrestling sponsored its first match in Iran in decades -- a 1998 competition at the Iranian Takhti Club in Tehran. In February of this year, the U.S. wrestling team competed in Tehran.
Just days before, on Feb. 12, the International Olympic Committee executive board recommended that wrestling no long be considered a core sport at the Olympics. A final decision will be made in September.
Mike Novogratz, an investor who helped organize the Grand Central wrestling matches through his organization Beat the Streets Wrestling, said it was an "absurd decision" by the IOC board to propose remove wrestling from the Olympics in 2020, describing it was one of the most popular sports in the Muslim world.
Wrestling advocates, he said, are seeking to use the New York event, as well as an upcoming match in Los Angeles, to raise international awareness about the sport and convince the IOC to reverse its decision. As a fall back, he said, wrestling organizers, have been considering asking the Olympic governing body to readmit wrestling as a new sport. In order to do that, they are considering improving the sports marketing component and implementing some changes in the rules to make it more accessible to younger audiences who have had trouble understanding the sport's sometime arcane rules.
It wouldn't hurt to see the Obama administration embracing the sport of wrestling with the same passion as Russian President Vladimir Putin and outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Dan Gable, a 1972 Olympic gold medal winner who, as a coach, led the University of Iowa to 16 NCCA championships. "I really feel both in Russia and Iran wrestling comes right out of their government offices," he said. "Our president, Obama, he's not involved as much."
He said Obama had good reason to take an interest, noting that another American president from Illinois had a keen interest in the sport, one that he hoped Obama might be compelled to emulate. "Lincoln was a wrestler; he held matches on the White House lawn."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
It felt for a moment like the old days.
In a bold display of big-power diplomacy reminiscent of the waning years of the Cold War, the top U.S. and Russian diplomats met in Moscow this week to announce plans for ending a festering regional dispute in Syria that has divided the world.
After two years of diplomatic deadlock, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans to convene an international conference to press for a political transition in Syria. Speaking at a joint press conference in Moscow with Lavrov at his side, Kerry affirmed the two governments' shared commitment to "a negotiated settlement as the essential means of ending the bloodshed, addressing humanitarian disaster in Syria, and addressing the problem of the security of chemical weapons and forestalling further regional instability."
The proposed conference -- which aims to drag representatives from Syrian government and the insurgency together -- offers more than a referendum on the prospects for peace in Syria. It marks a major test of whether two major powers can still shape events in a region where they are competing for influence with a new generation of players, including jihadist militants with no loyalty to Moscow or Washington; a calculating regime desperately clinging for control; and a growing roster of allies and enemies, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran, that appear committed to resolving the conflict through the use of force. Even Britain and France -- two stalwart American allies who officially support the U.S. and Russian mediation -- have been ramping up pressure within Europe for greater outside military support for the Syrian rebels.
The agreement was applauded at the United Nations, where U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.N.-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, fear a military victory by the Syrian opposition will plunge the region into greater sectarian violence. Brahimi, like his predecessor Kofi Annan, have viewed the big powers -- particularly the permanent five (P-5) members of the Security Council -- led by the United States and Russia -- as the components in forging a peace alliance in the Security Council to pressure the parties to stop fighting.
"This is welcome; this is good news," Jan Eliasson, the U.N. deputy secretary general, told reporters today. Eliasson also noted that Brahimi, who had informed U.N. diplomats that he would resign, had agreed to a request by Ban stay on to support the U.S.-Russian initiative. We "now hope that all partners will seize this opportunity and really contribute to a political settlement."
But the U.S.-Russian diplomatic initiative was received with skepticism from U.N.-based diplomats and observers, who say the former Cold War powers no longer have the influence they once had to call the shots. "Lakhdar Brahimi is of the old school; he is always saying, like, ‘Mr. Annan, I can't act if the P-5 isn't united,'" said one senior European diplomat. "It's not convincing. Even if the P-5 were united I don't see what difference it would make. The people are fighting, their survival is at stake."
Some observers see the proposed Syria conference as delaying tactic, a new diplomatic initiative aimed as much at lessening international pressure for U.S. military intervention in Syria than on a workable vehicle for ending the war. "I think there is a real sense that this is a mechanism for the United States and the Russians to buy time, and so there is going to be a huge amount of skepticism going into this conference," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "I think the conference alienates the Saudis and Qataris, and disappoints the British and French -- who have been driving hard for a more aggressive line and using the chemical weapons [claims] to strengthen their case."
Gowan said the U.S. diplomatic initiative with Russia will apply "marginal pressure" on President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate a political settlement -- "though I think Assad will remain relatively confident the Russians won't throw him to the wolves." But Gowan added that Washington's diplomatic gambit may ultimately undercut what little "U.S. prestige" still exists among the rebels.
Salman Shaikh., the director of the Brookings Doha Center, an outpost of the Washington-based think-tank, which receives funding from Qatar, said there remain fundamental differences between the United States and Russia that could imperil an agreement. For instance, neither side has settled the question of what role President Assad would play in Syria during a political transition. The rebels have so far refused any talks about a political transition that did not foresee Assad's removal from power. Kerry told reporters in Jordan today that "in our judgment, President Assad will not be a component" of a transitional government. But it remains unclear whether Russia agrees with that position, or whether Assad would retain his title during a political transition.
"Russia and the U.S. still seem to be apart on agreeing on Assad's future," said Shaikh. "There is muddle and differing interpretations on the framing of this conference, reflecting earlier disagreements on the interpretation of the Geneva Agreement of last year. Until these are agreed, [Moscow and Washington] will not be able shape a viable political solution."
"Furthermore," Shaikh added. "I doubt that the U.S. will succeed in getting the ‘official opposition,' the Syrian National Council, to the negotiating table if any political solution leaves open the possibility of Assad remaining in power."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
The Swedish scientist tapped by the United Nations to lead the hunt for evidence of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, has informed top diplomats that he is in a race against time, and that the key signatures of a chemical attack -- traces of chemical agents captured in soil and human blood, hair, and tissues -- will be increasingly difficult to obtain as each day passes.
The passage of time is only one the many challenges confronting Ake Sellstrom, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq. Sellstrom has not been allowed into Syria to collect first-hand evidence to test conflicting claims by Syria's main combatants and outside governments that chemical weapons have been used - both by the Syrian government and rebels. The inspectors -- who are operating out of offices in the Hague and staging in Cyprus -- are confronting a dizzying area of claims and counterclaims blaming both government forces and insurgents with introducing chemical agents into a civil war that has already resulted in the death of well over 70,000 people.
Over the weekend, former U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who is serving on a U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, added to the confusion, telling an Italian-Swiss news agency that she had "strong, concrete suspicions" -- though not "incontrovertible proof" -- that insurgents had used the chemical agent, sarin. Her account -- which is based on interviews from Syrian refugees and reinforces the claims of Bashar al-Assad's government -- contradicts assertions by British and French intelligence agencies that they had credible evidence that it was Syrian forces that used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians. However, the commission of inquiry subsequently put out a statement saying that it "wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons by any parties to the conflict."
Britain and France, meanwhile, have dialed back their claims in recent days, indicating that, like the U.S. assessment, they lack absolute proof. "It is limited evidence but there is growing evidence that we have seen too of the use of chemical weapons, probably by the regime," British Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC.
For the time being, Sellstrom and his team of chemists, health officials, and munitions experts will be required to rely on evidence furnished by Syrian combatants and foreign governments; witness and victim testimony; or blood and tissue samples collected from potential victims in refugee camps outside Syria. But evidence collected so far from the scene of the crime, or compiled by a foreign intelligence agency, will be vulnerable to challenges, according to experts on chemical weapons. "If you are sitting in Cyprus and you're getting this stuff second hand it will be a very weak element," said Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector who led the CIA Iraq Survey Group study that concluded that Baghdad had destroyed most of its weapons of mass destruction shortly after the first Gulf War. For those interested in "promoting ambiguity" about the veracity of the findings "you can make a lot of mischief," said Duelfer. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was "brilliant' at sowing doubt about the integrity of the U.N.'s inspections. For instance, he noted that Lavrov has accused U.N. inspectors of possibly doctoring chemical samples to "taint the evidence," Duelfer recalled. In the end, said Duelfer, unless Moscow can be convinced to support this effort this is "just going to be a big mess."
If the risks mission failure are high -- and Deulfer and other top former U.N. weapons inspectors say they are -- Sellstrom has shown little sign of stress.
Another Swede, Rolf Ekeus, a former chief of the U.N. Special Commission for Iraq (UNSCOM) and a mentor to Sellstrom, said he was taken aback by his protégé's calm when he ran into him at the Swedish Foreign Ministry shortly after his appointment.
"What struck me was that he didn't appear afraid or scared to be facing this challenge," said Ekeus. "I think he should be scared. But he has tremendous experience in these matters and I think he was a little excited to bring that experience to bear on a complex new problem."
Sellstrom was recruited by Ekeus in the early 1990s to conduct inspections for UNSCOM in Iraq. Ekeus describes him as a "charming, good humored," inspector who was respected by his colleagues as well as his Iraqi counterparts. Sellstrom, he recalls, was more diplomatic than some of the more senior U.S. and British weapons inspectors, who had a reputation for gruffness in their exchanges with the Iraqis. ("We used to refer to them lovingly as the grumpy old men," said one former weapons inspector.)
"[Sellstrom] would be a natural leader," said Ekeus. "He has few enemies. Not even the Iraqis were terribly angry at him."
Faced with Iraqi accusations of bias by the inspectors, Richard Butler -- a former Australian diplomat who succeeded Ekeus as UNSCOM's chief -- selected Sellstrom in 1998 to lead a group of outside experts reviewing UNSCOM's assessment of Iraq's biological weapons program. Iraq claimed that it had provided UNSCOM with a full account, but that the inspectors unfairly refused to believe them. Sellstrom traveled to Iraq to interview top Iraqi officials about the biological weapons program. During the visit, then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, called Sellstrom into his office and tried to convince him that Iraq had complied with the U.N.'s demands. "Aziz used his personal authority and charm to encourage Sellstrom to change his tough approach," said Ekeus. "Sellstrom was not in a position to accommodate Aziz because of the lack of satisfactory responses from the Iraqi experts. In the end, [Sellstrom's report] report outlined several Iraqi shortcomings.... It was a disaster for the Iraqi side."
Ekeus cites the anecdote to highlight Sellstrom's mental toughness in the face of challenges from powerful players, an attribute that will be critical in pursuing any potential forthcoming Syrian investigation, in what's sure to be a highly charged political environment. But the episode also underscores the limitations of weapons inspections, even in what was the most intrusive weapons inspection regime in history. Baghdad persistently withheld documents, witnesses, and physical evidence of their weapons program in discussions with U.N. inspectors, fueling suspicions of hidden programs. But in the end, Aziz was not so far off the mark. Iraq's biological weapons program had largely been shelved after the Gulf War in 1991.
Former U.N. inspectors say Iraq offers a cautionary tale about the misuses and abuses of foreign intelligence. But they may yet prove to be a value asset to Sellstrom.
Hans Blix, the former chief of the U.N. Monitoring Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC), which succeeded UNSCOM in the hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, said that American and British intelligence failures leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq should not lead Sellstrom to "ignore or reject" the findings of Western intelligence in Syria. "They have sources and contacts that have value but it should be evaluated with professional, critical attitude," he said.
Blix said that Sellstrom is an "old hand" in the chemical and biological weapons field and that his experience should be "put to good use" in Syria. But Blix cautioned that Sellstrom would be wise to "leave the political judgment" to the diplomats. If his team "sticks to an absolutely professional standard the outside pressure should be irrelevant to them. And I think that attitude serves the world best and it also serves the U.K. and the United States."
The technical challenges, while daunting, are not insurmountable. Sellstrom has informed diplomats that if chemical agents have been used in Syria, the victims would possess traces of the chemical agent in their body for up to about 3 months.
Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior researcher at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, says that traces of certain second-tier chemical agents like chlorine, which was reportedly used in Aleppo, would likely have evaporated by now. The nerve gas sarin, he said, could likely still be "detected in miniscule quantities" if one gets to the scene of the crime.
"It's possible to detect [sarin byproducts] for quite a while. I'm talking weeks, perhaps months, depending on the evaporation rates. But it is inherently "unstable and would break down pretty fast."
Zanders also noted that hospital records -- particularly autopsy reports -- could provide important clues to the possible use of chemical agents. But he noted that there was no guarantee that Sellstrom would gain access to information. In the meantime, Zanders said, he remains skeptical that sarin was ever used.
"I have serious doubts about these allegations," he said. "Nothing which I have seen from pictures or film footage have shown what I would expect to see from a sarin attack."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Before reports of chemical weapons use surfaced earlier this year in Syria, Rolf Ekeus, a prominent Swedish arms control specialist who headed up the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the 1990s, had been exploring ways to learn more about the chemical stockpiles in Syria and several other countries that were beyond the reach of the world's chemical weapons watchdog.
As chairman of a senior advisory group for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ekeus privately advocated that the agency appoint a special emissary that could reach out to those governments -- Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan -- that had never ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, and were therefore not subject to international scrutiny. (Israel and Myanmar have signed the convention.)
The goal was two-fold: encourage these outliers to join the treaty body, and in the meantime, gather some insights into the scope of their programs, particularly in Syria, where international concern about the fate of the country's chemical stockpile was coming into relief as the country slid deeper into civil war.
But Ekeus encountered resistance from Ahmet Uzumcu, a former Turkish diplomat who serves as executive director of the Hague-based OPCW, and who vigorously opposed the initiative. The agency's executive council, which includes Britain, China, France, Iran, Russia, and the United States, also showed little interested in the proposal. They said "absolutely not," Ekeus recalled during a phone interview from his home in Stockholm. "These countries are not a party to the treaty so we have nothing to do with them," he was told. "I wanted a permanent arrangement for dialogue with non-members of the convention," he said. "Everyone was against it."
Ekeus said his "feeble effort" to reach out to these countries "was killed" in discussions by his advisory group, squandering an opportunity to improve the organization's understanding of the Syrian chemical weapons program.
Ekeus's disclosure comes weeks after Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist and former Ekeus protégé, was appointed to lead a U.N. mission investigating conflicting claims about the uses of chemical weapons in Syria. Sellstrom -- who was recruited by Ekeus in the 1990s to hunt for chemical weapons in Iraq -- is relying on the OPCW to supply most of his team's 15 inspectors. They have little first-hand knowledge of Syria's chemical weapons program, according to Ekeus.
The Syrian government insists that rebels attacked Syrian forces with chemical weapons on March 19 outside the city of Aleppo, But Syrian opposition leaders, along with Britain, France, and Israel, have counterclaimed that Syria fired chemical weapons at its own people on at least three separate incidents. President Barack Obama said the United States believes chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but that there is insufficient evidence to prove who did it.
It remains unclear why the OPCW and its board members objected to the Ekeus request. A spokesman for the chemical weapons watchdog, Michael Luhan, declined to comment on the matter. Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged countries that have not ratified the chemical weapons convention to do so.
Perhaps it is unlikely to expect that Syria, which does not publically acknowledge it possesses chemical weapons, would reveal its most guarded national security secrets to an international emissary. Ekeus said that organization's failure to proactively court the Syrians has left them in the dark.
"There is very little knowledge about what they [the Syrians] really have because the organization does not want to touch governments, which are not parties to the treaties," he said. "My proposal was that they should try to build some skills, but now it's too late. Now, Sellstrom has to start from scratch."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria has informed senior U.N. diplomats that he intends to resign in the coming weeks, marking the end of another doomed U.N. diplomatic effort to end a bloody civil war that has left well over 70,000 dead in Syria, according to U.N.-based diplomats.
The decision pitches the world’s main diplomatic initiative on Syria into a state of crisis at a time when the United States and its allies are weighing a response to reports to new intelligence reports indicating that Syria may have used chemical weapons against his people. It comes as Ake Sellstrom, the U.N.'s newly appointed chemical weapons inspector, arrived in Washington for meetings with U.S. officials on the Syrian program.
The United States has sought to persuade Brahimi to put off his plans to step down until after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry concludes a May 7-8 visit to Moscow for meetings on Syria and other matters with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Martin Nesirky, chief spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declined a request to confirm Brahimi’s resignation plans. But a U.N.-based diplomat from a government that has been briefed on the matter by Brahimi said he had confirmed his plans. "He said he’s going to resign," said the diplomat. But he said he would delay a formal announcement to allow the U.N. to "arrangement for a transition."
The U.N. secretary general, meanwhile, has been in discussions with the U.N.’s five major powers -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- about the future of U.N. diplomatic efforts after Brahimi's departure.
Brahimi, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter who has led major peace efforts from Afghanistan to Iraq, has voiced increasing despair in recent weeks over the dwindling prospects for a political transition in Syria. He has faulted the Syrian government and the armed opposition for failing to recognize the futility of a military victory and the need for a negotiated settlement.
"I am personally, profoundly sorry that my own efforts have produce so little," he told the Security Council in a closed-door meeting last month. "I apologize to the Syrian people for having, in the end, done so little for them during these past eight months and to you, in this council, for having had only sad news to report to you."
One senior Western diplomat who met with Brahimi in recent weeks said that the U.N. envoy had expressed frustration with a March 6 decision by the Arab League to adopt a resolution authorizing the Syrian National Coalition, the main Syrian opposition group, to represent Syria at the Arab League. The resolution, he explained to the Security Council last month, constituted a recognition that "no dialogue or negotiations are possible or necessary."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
Yesterday, I wrote a story -- published in the Washington Post and posted on this blog -- detailing how flawed intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program had cast a shadow over an ongoing effort to establish the facts surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. A former inspector from the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq took issue with my characterization of the Iraq effort as the "fruitless pursuit of lethal stockpiles that had long before been destroyed" and directed me to an official list of UNSCOM achievements.
It is true that UNSCOM was responsible for identifying and destroying large numbers of dormant chemical and biological weapons in Saddam's arsenals. But U.N. weapons inspections endured for so long -- more than 15 years -- because Iraq had secretly destroyed many of its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the summer of 1991, telling the U.N. it had feared U.S. military retaliation if the stocks were ever discovered.
U.N. inspectors -- unable to obtain persuasive documentary proof from the Iraqis that the weapons had been destroyed -- engaged in a largely "fruitless" effort to find them or corroborate Iraq's claims that they no longer existed. It was not until after Saddam Hussein's overthrow that the CIA's Iraq Survey Group -- headed by a former U.N. inspector, Charles Duelfer -- provided a definitive account indicating that Iraq had destroyed most of its chemical and biological weapons programs by 1991. Here's a link to UNSCOM's official achievements page for a fuller list of weapons destroyed.
"UNSCOM has uncovered significant undeclared proscribed weapons programmes, destroyed elements of these programmes so far identified, including equipment, facilities and materials, and has been attempting to map out and verify the full extent of these programmes in the face of Iraq's serious efforts to deceive and conceal," reads the UNSCOM statement.
"Examples of what has been uncovered since 1991 include: the existence of Iraq's offensive biological warfare programme; the chemical nerve agent VX and other advanced chemical weapons capabilities; and Iraq's indigenous production of proscribed missiles engines. Following these discoveries, UNSCOM has directed and supervised the destruction or rendering harmless of several identified facilities and large quantities of equipment for the production of chemical and biological weapons as well as proscribed long-range missiles."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
A few days ago, a little-known Swedish scientist with a career devoted to studying lethal warfare agents paid a quiet visit to London. He was there to examine evidence that British officials believe shows that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against their own people.
Ake Sellstrom's confidential mission marked the first stage in a fledgling U.N. investigation into claims that the nerve agent sarin was used in battles in at least three Syrian cities since last December. The inquiry has once again thrust the United Nations into the center of a hunt for weapons of mass destruction.
For U.N. inspectors, the new inquiry is reminiscent of the days when they scoured Iraq's deserts and industrial parks more than a decade ago in pursuit of lethal stockpiles of chemical weapons that had long before been destroyed and nuclear facilities that no longer existed.
There are, to be sure, stark differences between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad's Syria. For one, the United States, which led the push for war in Iraq, appears reluctant to enter the war in Syria. For another, U.N. inspectors may never be permitted to step foot in Syria to examine the sites in question, making it extremely difficult to establish definitively whether chemical weapons were used and by whom.
But officials at U.N. headquarters also see the parallels and potential pitfalls between Iraq and Syria. Among them is a big-power rift between the United States and Russia and the reactivation of several veterans of the Iraq inspections, including Sellstrom. As happened with Iraq, any findings by the U.N. team will fuel an international debate about the wisdom of military intervention in Syria.
Its conclusions also will test the reliability of Western intelligence agencies, particularly in the United States and Britain, whose flawed intelligence served as the basis for the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "The echoes of weapons inspections in Iraq are inescapable," said Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, who managed his government's Iraq policy at the United Nations from 1997 to 2002.
Read the entire story, which ran in the Washington Post, here.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon renewed an appeal to Syria to allow U.N. chemical weapons experts into the country, saying that on-site inspections "are essential if the United Nations is to be able to establish the facts and clear up all the doubts surrounding this issue."
The U.N. chief's remarks, delivered with the head U.N. chemical weapons inspector, Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, at his side, followed allegations by several countries, including Britain, France, Israel, and the United States, that chemical weapons were likely used in Syria.
The Syrian government invited the U.N. last month to conduct an investigation into its claims that rebels attacked Army forces with chemical weapons in a March 19 attack near Aleppo that left 26 people dead.
But Syria balked after Britain and France urged the U.N. chief to also investigate opposition claims that the government used chemical weapons in three cities: Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs.
Last week, President Barack Obama added his voice to the controversy, claiming that "we now have some evidence that chemical weapons have been used on the populations in Syria. Now, these are preliminary assessments; they're based on our intelligence gathering. We have varying degrees of confidence about the actual use, but there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used."
Speaking in advance of a meeting with Sellstrom on the status of the U.N. probe, Ban said that he took "seriously the recent intelligence report of the United States about the use of chemical weapons in Syria" and urged the "Syrian authorities to allow the investigation to proceed without delay and without any conditions."
Ban said that that "a credible and comprehensive inquiry requires full access to the sites where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used," noting that an advance team of U.N. inspectors is already position in Cyprus, ready to deploy inside Syria within 24 to 48 hours of receiving a green light from authorities in Damascus.
In the meantime, Sellstrom travelled to London last Monday to examine physical evidence, including soil samples contaminated with a sarin-like agent -- that Britain claims indicates the government used chemical weapons. Ban said last week that the United Nations has already been in contact with the United States to discuss its claims. "Even while waiting for Syrian consent to enter the country, they have been doing what they have to do and what they can to gather and analyze available information," Ban said. "These activities include possible visits to relevant capitals."
"This is a crucial moment in our efforts to get the team on the ground to carry out its important task," Ban said. "Today, 29 April, is the annual Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Chemical Warfare. As we address these allegations, I encourage all involved to uphold their responsibilities in enabling us to properly police these heinous weapons of massive destruction."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
The U.N. Security Council this morning authorized the creation of a new force of 12,640 U.N. peacekeepers to consolidate French military gains against Islamist militants in northern Mali.
The new force -- to be called the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Force (MINUSMA) and comprised primarily of African soldiers -- is expected to secure several northern towns, where an insurgency by Islamic militants and Tuareg separatists was recently put down by French special forces and their feeble Malian army allies.
The council's action comes as the French military -- which intervened last January in Mali at the government's invitation to repulse what they feared was an all-out offensive on the capital -- is looking to withdraw most of its forces from Mali, and to place the U.N. in command of thousands of African troops that have already deployed in Mali in support of the French operation.
But the mandate adopted by the 15-nation council reflected the continuing uncertainty about the durability of France's military successes in Mali. A July 1 timetable for transferring peacekeeping authority to the United Nations is contingent on the further assessment of the threat posed to the peacekeepers by the armed militants. Today's resolution also authorizes French troops, operating under the command of the French government, to use military force to deter any threats against the U.N. peacekeepers.
France -- which currently has about 4,000 troops in Mali -- is hoping to scale back its presence by the end of the year, leaving a more permanent force of about 1,000 troops to carry on counterterrorism operations against remnants of the insurgency, and when needed, protect U.N. peacekeepers.
The French role has proven controversial within U.N. circles. While the U.N. is grateful that France will provide a last line of protection against the insurgents, it has expressed some misgivings about the risks of being too closely associated with a military counterterrorism campaign, fearing it would expose U.N. personnel in Mali and beyond to reprisal by extremist groups.
The U.N. resolution -- which was drafted by France -- condemns the Islamists' January 10 offensive towards southern Mali and welcomes the French decision to intervene to "stop the offensive of terrorist, extremist and armed groups." But it assigns no explicit combat role for the peacekeeping mission.
The mission -- which will be headed by a U.N. special representative -- will undertake several tasks, including securing strategic towns in northern Mali, promoting reconciliation between the Malian government, Tuareg separatists, and other groups in northern Mali that denounce any affiliation with extremist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The U.N. will also help Mali -- which saw a military coup last year -- prepare the ground for a democratic transition, including "free, fair, transparent and inclusive" presidential and legislative elections, to be held respectively on July 7 and July 21.
The U.N. peacekeepers will be granted limited authority to protect civilians "under imminent threat of physical violence" if they are able and if such attacks occur in the area where the U.N. is present. They will also monitor human rights violations, including those committed by Malian government forces; help protect cultural and historical landmarks; use "all means necessary, within the limits of their capacities and areas of deployment" to help the Malians; and "as feasible and appropriate" hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes.
The resolution hints -- but does not include explicit orders -- that the U.N. could use that authority to apprehend any future suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
The United States has abandoned an initiative to authorize a U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on human rights abuses in Western Sahara in the face of intensive resistance from Morocco, which exercises military control over the former Spanish colony.
Last week, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pushed for a broader mandate for the U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on rights abuses in Western Sahara and in Tindouf, Algeria, where more than 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live in a cluster of desert encampments.
The initial move -- which was applauded by human rights advocates -- encountered intense resistance from Morocco. Last week, Rabat protested the U.S. action by cancelling joint U.S.-Moroccan military exercises. The Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, also objected to the U.S. move in a letter to the White House. Morocco made clear that they would not allow the human rights monitors into Western Sahara.
The former Spanish possession is Africa's only remaining non-self-governing territory, with some 500,000 people in a sparsely populated desert expanse the size of Britain. Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, when the Spanish withdrew. Mauritania ultimately abandoned its claim, and Morocco claimed their share of the territory in 1979. Morocco -- aided by France's diplomacy -- has fiercely and successfully resisted efforts by the Polisario Front, which enjoys diplomatic support from Algeria, to claim independence.
The Algerian-backed Polisario rebels fought Moroccan troops until 1991, when a U.N. brokered ceasefire called for a referendum that would allow Saharans the ability to vote on an independence referendum. But Morocco has never allowed such a vote to occur, and now insists that Western Sahara remain as an autonomous part of Morocco. Morocco, however, has been unable to convince any other government to recognize its claim to Western Sahara.
For years, the government in Rabay has successfully blocked a raft of initiative by states, including Britain, to grant the U.N. mission a role in monitoring human rights abuses.
Last week, Rice surprised her counterparts in the so-called Friends of Western Sahara group -- which includes the governments of the United States, France, Britain, Spain and Russia -- by indicating that Washington would press for authorization of U.N. human rights monitors in a Security Council resolution renewing the U.N. peacekeeping mission's mandate for another year. But the proposal faced resistance in the U.N. Security Council from Morocco, the council's lone Arab government, and other key powers like France, China, and Russia.
Earlier this week, the United States dropped the proposal. The council is now set to vote tomorrow on a resolution that would renew the peacekeeping mandate, but without human rights monitors. Instead, the resolution offers far softer language stressing the importance of human rights, and encouraging key players to promote human rights and develop "independent and credible measures" to ensure those rights are respected.
Senior Security Council diplomats said that the United States had underestimated the depth of Moroccan opposition. They also complained that the U.S. delegation had failed to adequately consult with its key partners, including Britain, France, and Spain, before pressing ahead with the initiative.
However, one U.N. diplomat defending the U.S. position countered: "Not only did the U.S. coordinate with its allies and partners in the same timeframe as they typically do, but the positions of some important members of the Friends Groups had softened considerably on human rights."
Ahmad Boukhari, the U.N. representative of the Polisario Front, said that a stronger U.S. push could have resulted in a tougher resolution, but that he considered it a "moral victory" that the United States even put the matter on the table. Asked why the initiative was dropped, he said, "There were some difficulties whose nature is unknown to me."
The Moroccan mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
Human rights advocates, meanwhile, expressed disappointment at the U.S. reversal. "The U.S. starting position was right on target, and had it prevailed would likely have contributed to an improvement of human rights conditions both in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps around Tindouf, in Algeria," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "Sadly the U.S. neither stuck to its guns or secured a compromise allowing enhanced human rights monitoring. Moroccan intransigence and the lack of vocal support by allies such as the UK did not help."
Britain, he noted, had previously supported the U.N. human rights mission in the past "and should have done so vocally again this year."
A spokeswoman for the British mission to the United Nations, Iona Thomas, said: "The United Kingdom strongly supports the upholding of human rights in Western Sahara. We welcome that the resolution, if adopted, will emphasize the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf camps."
The United States move followed a report earlier this month by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who urged "further international engagement" with the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf. "Given ongoing reports of human rights violations the need for independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human right situations in both Western Sahara and the camps becomes ever more pressing."
The U.N. Security Council has been pressing Morocco to accept greater scrutiny of its human rights record. Last year, Rabat agreed to allow periodic visits by independent U.N. human rights experts, and experts from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"From the outset, our aim has been a renewal of MINURSO's mandate that is consistent with our goal of bringing about a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually agreed solution to the conflict whereby the human rights of all individuals are respected," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "As the secretary general underscored in his recent report on Western Sahara, human rights remains a serious issue that deserves the council's attention."
"The draft resolution contains additional language this year encouraging enhanced efforts and further progress on human rights," he added. "Human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps will continue to have the full attention of the U.N. Security Council and the United States, and we will be monitoring progress closely over the coming year."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Britain and France have informed the United Nations there is credible evidence that Syria has fired chemical weapons more than once in the past several months, according to senior U.N.-based diplomats and officials briefed on the accounts.
In letters to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the two European powers have detailed at least three instances of suspected chemical weapons used in or around the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus, since last December. The claims are based on a range of corroborating evidence -- including nerve agent soil samples, witness interviews, opposition sources, and accounts by medical experts who observed victims' symptoms, according to diplomats..
If proven, the allegations would provide the first hard evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war. And it would increase political pressure on the Obama administration to take steps to halt their future use.
President Barack Obama has warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "game changer" for the United States. Following the Aleppo incident, Obama said the United States would "investigate thoroughly exactly what happened" and that he had instructed "teams to work closely with all other countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether this red line was crossed."
But diplomats say the United States has responded cautiously. The United States, said one Security Council diplomat, has been "less activist on this" than Britain and France. "You can draw your conclusions as to why that might be."
The Europeans' presentation of their findings to the United Nations are in part aimed at countering claims by the Syrian government that armed opposition elements fired chemical weapons at Syrian forces on March 19, killing 26 people, including Syrian troops. European diplomats acknowledge that Syrian troops may have been exposed to a chemical agent during the March 19 attack, but they claim that they were hit in a "friendly fire" attack by a Syrian shell that missed an opposition target.
In making its case, Britain informed Ban in a confidential letter that it had obtained evidence confirming that Syrian forces had indeed been hit by a projectile containing the chemical agent in the town of Khan al-Asal.
The Syrian army, Britain claims, fired a chemical shell at a public facility suspected of harboring opposition elements, but that it veered off target, striking a Syrian government installation. Britain also informed the U.N. it has obtained a soil sample identifying the agent as "similar to sarin," according to a senior Western diplomat familiar with the case. But it remained unclear where the sample was located. The London Times, reported earlier this week that British intelligence had obtained a soil sample "of some kind of chemical weapon" near Damascus, though it cited a source saying. "It can't be definitively be said to be sarin nerve agent."
On March 20, Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, invited the U.N. to send an "impartial" technical team to Syria confirm the opposition's use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo. Russia strongly endorsed the Syrian request.
The U.N. chief quickly agreed to establish a fact-finding team and appointed a Swedish chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, to lead it. But the effort to deploy the team in Syria has bogged down over a big power dispute over the scope of the investigation.
Britain and France opposed the Syrian request for a narrow U.N. investigation into the single incident -- out of concern that the U.N. would be unable to prove who fired the chemical weapon, and that the physical evidence could be used to support the Syrian government's claim that it was a victim. Instead, they convinced Ban to expand the inquiry to include the examination of opposition claims that Syrian authorities used chemical weapons in Homs and Damascus. "There was a strong effort to foil the Syrian government narrative and urge the secretary general not to fall into that trap."
Ban agreed on March 21 to expand the investigation.
On Friday, Angela Kane, the U.N. undersecretary for disarmament affairs, informed Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, that the U.N. team would focus initially on the incident at Khan al-Asal, near Aleppo. But she added that Ban "has concluded the mission should also investigate the facts related to the reported incident on 23 December 2012 in Homs," according to an confidential communication.
The U.S. State Department carried out an internal investigation into the incident earlier this year, according to a report by Foreign Policy's blog, The Cable. Claims by opposition elements that Syria used chemical weapons in a March 19 attack in Ataybah town, near Damascus, are less persuasive than the other two cases.
Syria balked at the request to expand the investigation, and the two sides remained at an impasse. Despite repeated pleas from Ban, Damascus has not let the U.N. inspectors into the country.
Russia has vigorously backed the Syrian government's request, denouncing the European call for an expanded investigation as a ploy to delay the Aleppo inquiry.
On Monday, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, speaking during a closed door Security Council luncheon with the U.N. secretary general, scolded Ban for failing to accept the Syrian government's terms. "He gave him an earful," said one senior council diplomat who attended the luncheon.
The U.N. has written to Britain, France, and Syria, requesting further information and cooperation. Officials said the investigation team, currently in Cyprus, would likely travel to Britain to examine its soil sample, and interview Syrian refugees that may have been exposed to chemical agents.
In a press conference Wednesday, Ban told reporters that he would proceed with an investigation into the incidents outside the country. "I have been urging the Syrian government to show flexibility in accepting the proposed modalities," he said. "While awaiting consent from the Syrian government, the mission will proceed with its fact-finding activities. To this end, specific information has been requested from the governments concerned."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
The U.N. recently issued updated its guidelines for its senior officials on the etiquette of consorting with world leaders and lesser suspects that stand accused of committing massive war crimes.
Seems that would be a pretty obvious "no, no," but it's not as simple as it seems.
The latest regulations reaffirm existing U.N. guidelines restricting U.N. brass from most dealings with Sudan's leader, Omar al-Bashir, who stands accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of masterminding a campaign of genocide in Darfur several years ago.
But there are virtually no restrictions on dealings with Kenya's new leader, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who stands accused of orchestrating the killing, rape, and displacement of thousands of civilians from the cities of Nakura and Naivasha who were suspected of backing a rival political faction during the country's disputed election in 2008.
So, what's the difference between the court's treatment of Bashir and Kenyatta?
For starters, Kenyatta has recognized the court's legitimacy and appeared in The Hague to face the charges. Bashir hasn't.
The U.N. policy is crafted to reward suspects who cooperate with the Hague-based tribunal. Under the new guidelines, the ICC will issue a summons to a suspected war criminal who volunteers to face charges before the Hague court. But if a suspect makes it clear they won't appear, then the court will issue a formal arrest warrant, which places a legal obligation on governments that have ratified the treaty creating the war crimes court to surrender the individual.
The U.N., which signed a relationship agreement that requires it to refrain from undermining the ICC, reasons that contacts with cooperative suspects "do not undermine the authority of the court."
"U.N. officials may interact without restrictions with persons who are the subject of a summons to appear issued by the ICC and who are cooperating with the ICC," read the guidelines, which were presented to the U.N. Security Council earlier this month. A copy was obtained by Turtle Bay.
But the privilege can be taken away if Kenyatta halts his cooperation with the court. Kenyatta hinted at that possibility, declaring in his inauguration that Kenya intended to uphold its international obligations, but only if its relations with international institutions were based on "mutual respect" and affirmed Kenya's sovereignty. Since then, Kenyan officials have been pushing back. Last week, Kenya's deputy U.N. ambassador Koko Muli Grignon told the U.N. General Assembly that the ICC has no right to prosecute Kenyan nationals without the consent of the government, and that the case against Kenyatta and other Kenyan nationals should be transferred to a Kenyan court. The Hague-based tribunal, she added, "should be a "court of last resort."
Court observers find Kenyatta's remarks troubling.
"I think there is a concern that they may be backtracking," said Richard Dicker, an expert at Human Rights Watch, who noted that the ICC is only pursuing the case because "the Kenyan authorities have failed for several years to take action domestically."
For the time being, Dicker said, the ICC guidelines make sense for legal and policy purposes. First, he said, they affirm the "presumption of innocence" for the accused, including Kenyatta, who has not been convicted of a crime. The policy also serves as an incentive for suspects to cooperate with the court.
There are also practical considerations for making an exception for someone like Kenyatta. The U.N.'s African headquarters is stationed in Nairobi, providing support for peacekeeping, humanitarian, and anti-poverty missions throughout the continent. A breakdown in the relationship with the Kenyan leader could complicate the U.N.'s ability to do its work. In a sign of Kenya's importance, U.S. and European ambassadors attended Kenyatta's presidential inauguration. And Ban Ki-moon even sent a letter congratulating Kenyatta for his win.
The U.N.'s experience in Sudan, where the international body manages several major stability operations, has demonstrated how difficult it can be to shun a leader in a country's whose cooperation the U.N. depends on.
Ban's office chided the former chief of the African Union-U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Ibrahim Gambari, for attending a wedding where Bashir was also a guest [*See note below]. Last month, a U.N. Development Program official in Chad participated in a diplomatic welcoming committee that received Bashir at the airport, which prompted a call by Tiina Intelmann, the president of the ICC's Assembly of State's Parties, to senior U.N. officials to express concern about the incident. UNDP acknowledged that it had erred.
"The Officer-in-Charge of UNDP's country office in Chad...was requested by the Chad Government to form part of a receiving line for Heads of State arriving at the airport," said UNDP spokeswoman Christina LoNigro. "There he was introduced by President [Idriss] Deby to the Presidents of Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, and Benin. UNDP has taken this encounter, which runs counter to UN policy seriously, and has drawn the attention of all staff in the region to the policy."
Intellman welcomed the U.N. decision to release the guidelines, and said that member states of the ICC treaty body are trying to negotiate their own guidelines. She also voiced sympathy for the challenge posed by U.N. officials.
“The situations in which UN officials find themselves are quite complex,” she told Turtle Bay. She acknowledged that there are legitimate cases "where U.N. officials have to make essential contacts with indictees," highlighting U.N. efforts to promote peace deals.
So, what then is a U.N. official to do avoid an inappropriate encounter with an alleged mass murder? Here are some key pointers, from the new guidelines:
• It can be anticipated that persons who are the subject of arrest warrants issued by the ICC may deliberately seek to meet with UN officials in order to demonstrate their contempt for the ICC and try to undermine its authority.
• Contacts between U.N. officials and person who are the subject to warrants of arrest issued by the ICC should be limited to those which are strictly required for carrying out essential UN mandate activities.
• As a general rule, there should be no meetings between U.N. officials and person who are the subject of warrants of arrest issued by the ICC.
• There should be no ceremonial meetings with such persons and standard courtesy calls should not be paid. The same holds true of receptions, photo opportunities, attendance at national day celebrations and so on. If the person holds a position of authority in a state, every effort should be made to meet and liaise with individuals other than the person in order to conduct business.
• This being said, there may be a need, in exceptional circumstances, to interact directly with a person who is subject of an ICC arrest warrant. Where this is imperative for the performance of essential U.N. mandate activities, direct interaction with such a person may take place to the extent necessary only.
The current guidelines also include an explicit exemption for the U.N. secretary general -- who met with Bashir in Tehran in August -- and the deputy secretary general to meet with Bashir and other accused war criminals "from time to time" in order to discuss "fundamental issues affecting the ability of the United Nations and its various offices, programs and funds to carry out their mandates in the country concerned, including vital matters of security."
Court advocates like Dicker say the exemption can be justified if used sparingly. "Making clear that there are some exceptions is acceptable, but the devil will be in the details." He said any exception should adhere to "an appropriately narrow application or interpretation." For instance, U.N. officials must learn to turn down invitations to war criminals' nuptials. The trick, he said, is to insure this doesn't become "the exception that ate the rule."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
*Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ibrahim Gambari attended the wedding of President Bashir's daughter. It was the wedding of Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal. Bashir was in attendence.
This, I think, needs repeating.
When it comes to Syria, the United Nations is stuck.
You could almost be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the extraordinary number of meetings, investigations, and resolutions currently devoted to resolving a crisis that has left more than 70,000 dead and raised the specter of chemical warfare.
On March 21, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to send a U.N. team to Syria to investigate claims of chemical weapons use. I haven't spoken to a single diplomat or U.N. official who believes the team will ever be let into the country.
In the U.N. General Assembly, Qatar is asking governments to support a resolution that would bolster the Syrian rebels' international legitimacy. A final-watered down version may ultimately be passed, but like previous UNGA resolutions on Syria, its impact will be largely symbolic -- another stern demonstration of Syria's diplomatic isolation.
Lakdhar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on April 19, regarding his latest efforts to persuade the warring factions to agree to a political transition. Prospects for a peaceful transition have never looked bleaker.
There's a long history of diplomatic standstills generating a flurry of diplomatic action leading nowhere. In Darfur, Sudan, the U.N. Security Council once authorized a U.N. peacekeeping mission even though it was clear Khartoum would not let it into the country. In Bosnia, the council created U.N. safe havens that it couldn't be defend.
Syria is no different.
"The UN has been entirely cut out ... and I think there is no reason to believe any of these current activities is going to make the slightest difference on the ground," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. "What you see at the U.N. are diplomats creating noise to conceal the fact that they are not making progress."
It's unfair to write the U.N. off entirely.
The U.N. has been at the forefront of international efforts to raise concern about human rights abuses in Syria, while organizing the world's humanitarian response and collecting a catalogue of evidence of war crimes that could ultimately be used to hold some of Syria's worst human rights violators accountable for their crimes. And Ban has been outspoken in scolding the perpetrators of violence and pushing major powers to step up to the plate.
"On Syria, this is a most troubling situation where all the leaders of the world should really take a much more strengthened leadership role," Ban said after a meeting in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama. "I have asked President Obama to demonstrate and exercise his stronger leadership in working with key partners of the Security Council."
But the council -- the only U.N. institution that has real clout -- has been paralyzed by a big power dispute between China and Russia on one side, and the United States, Europe, and Arab governments on the other. The dispute poisons virtually every discussion.
The chemical weapons investigation is a case in point.
Last month, the Syrian government asked the U.N. secretary general to investigate its claim that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in a March 19 attack that killed 26 people, including 16 Syrian soldiers. Russia quickly rallied to Syria's defense, urging Ban to carry out the investigation as swiftly as possible.
But Britain and France, citing opposition claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, subsequently urged Ban to expand the investigation to include alleged incidents in Homs and Damascus. Ban agreed to look at all cases.
Syria, meanwhile, balked, insisting that U.N. could only investigate the single case in Aleppo. Russia has largely backed Syria's position, and made it clear that it would not allow the council to be used to pressure Syria to consent.
There has been no independent confirmation that chemical weapons were used, nor has there been confirmation that such munitions were used in some other recent cases, as alleged by the opposition. But Britain and France have presented the United Nations with information indicating numerous possible incidents of chemical weapons use.
Lacking Security Council support, Ban this week sought to coax Damascus into granting visas by announcing that the inspection team had already traveled to Cyprus, and was ready to go to Syria within 24 hours. "They are now ready to go," Ban reiterated following his meeting with Obama.
But U.N. officials and diplomats say privately that Syria, which has already refused Ban's terms for the probe, is unlikely to let the team in. "We're at an impasse," said one council diplomat.. "It doesn't look good."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
U.N. peacekeeping has its own caste system.
Rich countries pay most of the financial cost of keeping the peace. Poorer countries provide the peacekeepers. These days, they also die in far higher numbers than their wealthier counterparts.
No country has paid the price as often as India.
On Tuesday, India lost five of its U.N. blue helmets, who were ambushed by a force of 200 unidentified armed fighters in South Sudan. Five other Indian peacekeepers were badly injured. "We are in a process of assimilating the information about what happened," said Manjeev Singh Puri, the charge d'affaires at India's mission to the United Nations. "These soldiers have acquitted themselves with bravery,"
This is not the first time that India -- which has deployed more than 160,000 of its soldiers over the past 60 years in peacekeeping missions, more than any other nation -- has taken peacekeeping losses.
Since the dawn of U.N. peacekeeping, 154 Indian peacekeepers have died in the line of duty, more than any other country. Other developing nations, including Nigeria (135), Pakistan (132), Ghana (130), and Bangladesh (112), have posted large casualty figures.
Compare that with the U.N.'s top financial donors' death tally: the United States (70, although only a fraction have occurred in the past 15 years), France (108), Britain (103), Germany (15), South Korea (9), and Japan (5).
It was not always like this. In the first decade of U.N. peacekeeping, the majority of international casualties, some 41 out of 45 fatalities, were from Western armies. In the 1990s, the United States, France, Britain, and other Western powers formed the core of U.N. peacekeeping missions, sending tens of thousands of their troops to Cambodia, Somalia, and the Balkans. U.N. peacekeeping stalwarts that endured heavy fatalities in these causes and others include Canada (121), Ireland (90), and Sweden (67).
But many of those countries have since retreated from U.N. peacekeeping, preferring to serve in NATO-backed operations in Afghanistan, and leaving it to the developed world to stand sentry at the far reaches of the world.
Edward Luck, a historian and dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, said that Western governments have found it more difficult to maintain political support for U.N. peacekeeping after suffering serious losses.
In contrast, he noted, India, Pakistan, and other developed countries have been able to sustain far larger casualties in U.N. missions. Pakistan, for instance, lost 40 peacekeepers in the U.N. mission in Somalia in the early 1990s, but it had little impact on its willingness to sign up for more. For many developed countries, according to Luck, participation in peacekeeping has a financial motive. "The U.N. pay scale is higher than what they can pay their own forces," he said. "I don't think that's true for countries like India and Pakistan," he added, noting that their peacekeeping role elevates their standing on the international stage. India frequently cites its peacekeeping service in making a case for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
The United States, Luck recalled, largely ended its U.N. peacekeeping role in Somalia -- where it lost a total of 44 soldiers -- after the "Black Hawk Down" incident, an ill-fated military raid which resulted in the death of 18 U.S. Rangers and Delta Force operatives. Although the U.S. team was not serving under U.N. command at the time, the American public blamed the United Nations. In May 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a presidential directive that imposed strict conditions for U.S. involvement.
The Belgians and the Dutch suffered setbacks in Rwanda, where 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed by Hutu extremists during the 1994 genocide, and Bosnia, where a small contingent of Dutch blue helmets were powerless to halt the mass killing in Srebrenica. Both countries subsequently scaled back their participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Bruce Jones, the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, says that the number of troops allocated to a given peacekeeping mission provides an incomplete measure of Western powers' commitment to run risk in foreign stabilization operations, noting that U.S. and European troops in Afghanistan have endured far higher casualty figures than their counterparts in U.N. peacekeeping.
France, too, has shown an increasing willingness to participate in peace operations in Africa, even if it continues to deploy its forces under French command. "My bet is as the battle-hardened West pivots out of Afghanistan we will see a greater willingness by Western governments to participate in a major way in blue-helmeted operations and to take risks," Jones said.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.